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New England Supper

Called so after the Pilgrim Thanksgiving meal featuring brown bread, baked beans, and pumpkin pie, a communal pot-luck dinner usually held to benefit or honor a church group or other organization.

The ladies of the Congregational and Methodist churches here, united in preparing a pleasant New England supper at the new church, last Thursday evening. A fine large Dakota pig, roasted whole, was a feature of the occasion. -Lake Preston Times, January 16, 1882.

Although presented as a church benefit supper held on Thanksgiving evening in Little Town on the Prairie (see Chapter 19, “The Whirl of Gaiety”), De Smet’s first recorded New England Supper was given by the Congregational Church and held on January 12th, 1882. The ladies of the Baptist Church in De Smet held a New England Supper on Thanksgiving Day (November 26) in 1885, and the ladies of the Methodist Episcopal Church held a New England Supper in February 1887. It’s unclear if Laura Ingalls Wilder was confused about the year, the event, or merely placed a remembered New England Supper on Thanksgiving for the sake of the story. It was clearly important to Wilder; in the Little Town manuscript, “New England Supper” is used as a chapter title.

Described as featuring a “fine large Dakota pig, roasted whole” in the newspaper, the January 1882 event is likely the one Wilder had in mind. A religious service had been held in the surveyors’ house and conducted by Reverend Alden in February 1880, then the Congregational Church held meetings in the depot, moving them to the schoolhouse once it had been built. According to the church records, a meeting was held in June 1881 to determine how much money could be raised for a church building. At a meeting in July, a total of $200 was collected towards the $1500 sanctuary decided upon. In September, the building society of the Congregational Church agreed to loan the De Smet congregation $500 if the members could raise $1000. Construction was nearly complete on November 4th, 1881, when President Chester A. Arthur made his Thanksgiving Proclamation, recommending “that all the people observe Thursday, the 24th day of November instant, as a day of national thanksgiving and prayer, by ceasing, so far as may be, from their secular labors and meeting in their several places of worship, there to join in ascribing honor and praise to Almighty God, whose goodness has been so manifest in our history and in our lives, and offering earnest prayers that His bounties may continue to us and to our children.” The year had been a somber one, as President James Garfield was shot only a few months after being sworn into office, and he languished for months until his September 1881 death. What was intended to be a Thanksgiving dinner may have been postponed until after the New Year for this reason.

The original church sanctuary as built measured 28 feet by 48 feet, but the interior was made smaller by two small rooms that took up space on either side of the center entry. There was no basement or kitchen, so the entire New England Supper (from food presentation to dining to cleaning up) took place in one room. The fund-raising meal was called a “New England” supper because of the dishes served, including baked beans, steamed Boston brown bread, Indian pudding, and pumpkin pies, “for those are the things that chiefly compose the New England supper.” Many items were traditionally prepared on Saturday evening and allowed to cook slowly all night at a time when Sunday was a day of rest and cooking was work to be refrained from.   – “A Church Sale Supper.” The Delineator LXX (October 1907): 581.


New England Supper (LTP 19; PG)